The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A majority of millennials don’t think they are millennials

Millennials doing millennial stuff. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post)

One of the first big media explorations of the term "millennial" came from the pages of Advertising Age magazine. There was a book that came out in September 2000 called "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation," and within a few months, AdAge's Bonnie Tsui laid out a few thousand words about what this new generation meant for brands.

Her savviest point was this:

In the past, generations were defined largely by the year in which one was born. Now target marketing has reached the point where generational attitudes are discerned and used as a starting point for media planning.

Put another way? Generations mean more in marketing terms than in sociological ones. Which mirrors what Columbia University sociologist Tom DiPrete said when we spoke last year. "The media in particular wants [generational] definitions, identities," he said. "I don't know that the definitions are as strong or as widely shared across all the boundaries. … At the end I think it gets fuzzy."

A new survey from Pew Research shows that "millennial" isn't really how millennials see millennials, either. Pew asked respondents to identify the generation with which each identified, and sorted them by their "actual" generation. Obligatory reminder, to DiPrete's point: There is no "actual" generation for any group besides the Baby Boomers, which is a statistically defined group. Pew's definition of what counts as millennial -- defined by year of birth -- isn't the same as other organizations'.

That said, millennials were less likely than other groups to identify as their "correct" generation. (Wearing out my scarequote key here.) Forty percent of people born within Pew's millennial boundaries saw themselves as millennials. Eight percent ... saw themselves as Boomers.

Pew notes that the generational self-identity of Millennials (born 1981 to 1997) is lower than that of Generation X (1965 to 1980) or Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964). It's higher than the "silent generation," those born (1928 to 1945). Just as older millennials see themselves as part of Generation X (43 percent of those aged 27 to 34), the silent generation prefers to identify as Boomers or the "greatest generation" -- those that fought in World War II.

"In part, this reflects the low visibility of the term 'Silent Generation,'" Pew's researchers write. But also it probably reflects that the name is lousy. If you gave me the choice between saying I was in the Greatest Generation or the Silent Generation, you know what I'd pick? Pew's question was "How well would you say the term GREATEST GENERATION applies to you?" Pretty well, thanks! Eight percent of millennials say they're in the greatest generation, but very, very few of them fought in World War II.

I am in Generation X, to the extent that any non-Boomer is anything.* And I remember with great clarity how we were all terrible cynical slackers that wore flannel to Ethan Hawke movies. Well, guess what! Millennials see themselves as more cynical than we do. They see themselves as more wasteful and more self-absorbed. Generations now come of age in a world that analyzes and markets and leverages and social medias everything they do, a world in which older people look at younger people and their newfangled music and contraptions, package them into ad hoc groups and judge them poorly. Happened to us; it's happening to them. Millennials, though, are probably more aware of this process. Many of them no doubt know that when we talk about "millennials," we don't actually mean and aren't actually describing them.

It's marketing! And in the lingo, "millennial" means "young" or "new." It's a framework that allows things like this 2007 exploration of how millennials behave and think, produced as sponsored content for ABC family by AdAge. It means that millennials often see "millennials" in those defined terms -- which often aren't complimentary. Millennials see themselves as less patriotic than Boomers see themselves -- and less responsible, hard-working, moral, self-reliant, etc. "To be sure, some of these differences may be related more to age and life stage than to the unique characteristics of today’s generations," Pew writes. And since each generation sees itself more positively in the contexts of these positive terms, per Pew, that's likely right. The media made up millennials and then constantly talks about how millennials are young selfie jerks, and voila. No wonder older millennials see themselves as Gen X, given the chance. No Boomer would have chosen that in 1995.

And now the kicker. The term "millennial" itself apparently stems in part from an informal survey conducted by ABC News in late 1997. When Peter Jennings revealed the results during World News Tonight, he explained that "the second largest number though there should be no label [for the generation] at all, and the greatest interest was in the millennium generation, or the millennials." As often happens, the runners-up had the better point.

* Weirdly enough, one sociologist I spoke with thinks that the millennial generation may end up sharing enough sociological indicators to be a "real" generational cohort! For now, though, it's still mostly marketing.